When We Danced on Water


In this novel of intimacy and identity, of art and ambition, the line between passion and obsession is as fluid as the lithest dancer.

Book synopsis: One of the main characters of Evan Fallenberg’s When We Danced on Water (HarperCollins, May 2011) is 85-year-old Teo Levin, who has experienced a full and rich life of dance. He was a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, a student of Balanchine, and then, for more than 50 years, head of the Tel Aviv Ballet. He was the choreographer of spare, prize-winning ballets hailed as some of the finest of the twentieth century. But when Vivi, a young waitress at the Tel Aviv café he frequents, enters his life, both he and she are affected in unexpected ways. Their relationships to art and, indeed, to life itself shift, and the experiences they have had—in Warsaw and Copenhagen, in Berlin and Tel Aviv—and have tried to suppress, resurface with a vengeance.

You cover so much ground, literally, in this book, moving the story from Tel Aviv to Copenhagen to Berlin, and also traveling in time between the 1920s and 1980s? How much organizing/structuring did you have to do before crafting the story?

I knew the arc of the entire story before I began writing; I knew that the present story would take place in Tel Aviv while the characters’ histories would include Warsaw, Copenhagen, and Berlin. But I only cut up the different pieces of their histories and reassembled them when I was midway through the revision process. Working like that helps me; on the one hand, I need a road map when I am writing in order to have a fairly clear idea of where I am headed, while on the other hand, I allow myself to take as many detours as necessary, because it’s the detours in life that most enrich us.

One of the main characters, Teo, was head of the Tel Aviv Ballet and there are numerous dance descriptions throughout the book. Where did your dance knowledge come from?

I have always loved to watch dance, but never knew much about it, certainly not enough to write intelligently about it. So I did research, conducted interviews, and took ballet lessons, all in the name of sounding credible on the page. (Writers of fiction need to spend far more time on such credibility than writers of nonfiction since the latter are automatically believed as writers of “the truth.”

Learning about the development of dance in the pre-state and post-independence years of Israel was particularly fascinating. The early pioneers abhorred classical ballet because it reeked of the bourgeois lives so many of them had left behind in Europe. Ironically, German expressionist dance caught on here in Israel, so, while it was virtually wiped out in Europe during WWII, it continued to thrive here. Today, the dance scene in Israel is one of the most vibrant and exciting in the world, and the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, which appears in my book, is its epicenter.

Passion vs. obsession is one of the intriguing themes inside the pages of this book. As a creative yourself, do you ever have trouble finding the line? Can you give an example?

I’m afraid I’m probably not obsessive enough about my art; otherwise, I would have produced quite a bit more by this time in my life!

In fact, I am not like either of the two main characters of When We Danced on Water: Teo the obsessive and Vivi the dabbler. Unlike Teo, I let myself enjoy the process of creativity (the detours I referred to in the previous question). Sure, when I’m at a crucial stage—like becoming acquainted with my characters or getting the initial story down on the page or engaging in an umpteenth revision—I am very disciplined, but I am by no means an everyday writer who sits at the computer whether I have something to say or not.

Unlike Vivi, on the other hand, I do not allow myself to jump from medium to medium or project to project. I know that once I am committed, once I care enough about the characters and their story, I cannot allow anything or anyone else to interfere.

In short, I have tried to construct my life in a way that allows me to create at my own pace, enabling me to engage in other aspects of my life, like spending time with people I love, enjoying culture, or keeping fit.

There are several complicated relationships throughout this story. Was there one storyline, in particular, that you started with? Which ended up captivating you most?

Teo’s story was the one that got this project going. There were certain milestones about his life that I had figured out before writing a single word, and many of them—his early years in Warsaw, his progress as a dancer in Copenhagen, the years wallowing in Berlin, his surprising move to Israel—remained intact through every revision.

Vivi evolved. Her name changed a number of times, and her career as well, not to mention her personality. It took me much longer to understand her—what motivated her, her conflicting feelings toward Teo, her passion and, especially, her long-simmering ambitions. Once I figured these out, the intersection between Teo and Vivi became far more fertile and interesting, certainly for me as the writer committing their story to the page, and hopefully for the reader as well.

We learn that Vivi was an Israeli soldier in her past. Did you interview any female soldiers for that perspective, and did anything surprise you about that research?

Funny, that was one aspect of the book I did not research. I suppose that is because the army is so much a part of our experience and daily life here in Israel. I remember my own time in the army and am living through (very) different versions of that through my sons now, but I also listen to the army stories told by their girlfriends, my nieces, my friends’ daughters … the details are there for the collecting, if one only listens.

There is a line in the book: “All artistsall true artistsknow that their art must become their passion.” Do you think this is true?

I have a mixed and ambiguous relationship to the role of art in our lives. I love the creative impulse in myself and in people I communicate with, but art has become a magnet for so much that has little or nothing to do with that creative impulse—posturing and fame and money and self-promotion, to name a few—that in certain situations and with certain people I turn into a philistine and simply run away from it all. I like art when it comes from a true, true place deep inside: the stir of emotion, the agitation that seeks escape and bursts out of us in such wondrous, perplexing ways. I steer clear of people who give me the feeling they’re “artists” for the wrong reasons, and I try to quash those destructive impulses in myself when I notice they’re preoccupying me.

What do you hope readers will most take away from this book?

I try to create characters filled with ambiguities and inconsistencies and insecurities and talents and uniqueness. I try to let those characters interact in a story that engages. And I try to be as precise as possible with the magnificent English language, choosing le mot juste without calling undue attention to my style. If all these work, then I hope my readers will finish the book but continue to ponder it for a long time to come. And if it moves them or causes them to rethink something in their own lives, then I’ve earned the biggest reward of them all.

What question do you wish I asked and how would you answer it?

Would you like us to give you the Nobel, Pulitzer and Booker prizes in the same year, or would you prefer to have them spread out over, say, a six-year period?

Gosh, I’m a modest guy … I’ll take them whenever!

About the Author

Evan Fallenberg
Evan Fallenberg is author of the novels Light Fell (Soho Press, 2008) and When We Danced on Water (HarperCollins, 2011) and a renowned translator of Israeli fiction into English. His writing and translations have won many awards, including a National Jewish Book Award, an American Library Association Award for Literature, and a PEN Translation Prize. He is currently director of fiction for the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University.

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